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Friday, July 24, 2009

Yo Ho, Yo Ho…

I feel no guilt in saying that I get and always have gotten most of my entertainment illegally. I'm afraid that people will despise me, but I'm not afraid that I'm doing the wrong thing. This is just the way the world works now, there's nothing unethical about it.

When I was a kid, almost the only entertainment I had was TV shows. And almost the only TV shows I ever watched (since we never picked up more than two channels) were the Star Trek episodes my father had taped off American TV.

Then I discovered the internet, and I finally was exposed to games. Good games, not the shareware and educational trash which I'd been exposed to before. I found a Game Boy emulator and played through Pokémon Yellow, and then I'd go to school and hand out floppy disks with the same to anyone who'd take 'em. One kid then went out and bought himself a Game Boy so he could play it "for real", having never been exposed to videogames before and therefore not knowing what a rip-off the Israeli prices were.

I played other Nintendo games: Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time. Ah, Ocarina of Time. The game that showed me what games could be. And understand, before piracy I had nothing. I'd never touched a game system. But after playing Ocarina of Time, well, I wanted the next one. I read that a new Zelda game was coming to the Gamecube, and I went out and bought myself a Gamecube.

Every penny of the (literally) thousands of dollars I've spent on games is because of piracy. So don't you look at me like I'm corrupting your economy. The creators who think that every single copy of their work should earn them the amount of money that they've decided on, well, they're just being greedy. If I created stuff, I'd want as many people to experience it as possible. That's the point of creating anything. Getting every last penny you feel you're "owed" is not the point.

And still Nintendo tries to attack me as though I'm some sort of disease. I have the Homebrew Channel on the Wii, so that I can (illegally) play the old games which Nintendo refuses to sell me. Uniracers, in particular. I really wanted to play that on a real game system with a real controller. So I installed the Homebrew Channel, I enjoy the game every now and then, and every time I install a new system update I have to be worried that this is the time they'll catch up to the hackers and prevent me from being able to ever play Uniracers again. They keep trying, and the hackers keep coming up with ways of getting around whatever they set up.

Thank god for hackers.

Now, you might well ask why I bother to pay these corporate slimebags who try to attack me. It's a good question. I could give a whole bunch of rational-sounding answers, but they all feel a bit false to me, even as far as rationalizations usually go. I think there's an element of capitalist indoctrination there, that I feel that if I'm enjoying something enough to pay for it I should make an effort to pay for it. So if I see a decent sale, or some other opportunity to pay for stuff which I've already been enjoying for free, I usually take it. I've played games for literally hundreds of hours on emulators before buying legal copies. Generally used, since the new ones are more expensive than I can afford. Which I guess doesn't make a whole lot of sense- what's the difference between buying a used game and downloading an emulated game, exactly? But that's why I'm categorizing all this under "indoctrination" and not attributing rationality to it.

I'm going to switch topics a little bit and talk about comic books. Comic books are the exception to the general rule that piracy leads to actual purchases. And that's because the illegally-obtained comics are better than the legal ones.

As usual, a brief personal history: as a kid I only knew newspaper comic strips. Calvin & Hobbes, Garfield, Peanuts. That's about all I knew. Oh, and once I was at a friend's house whose father collected comics, and I read his limited-edition "Uncle Scrooge McDuck: His Life and Times" hardcover, which I later found out no one was allowed to touch. Uncle Scrooge is amazingly good. (I read it on the computer now.) But the Marvel and DC comics, the superhero stuff, I had no exposure to that. The first time I read a superhero comic, I had already seen the first X-Men movie (which I liked a lot) and the first Spider-Man movie (which I didn't), but superheroes were never "for me", they were what I had heard that other people liked. A classmate in ninth grade let me read a Batman comic, and I'm sure it wasn't a particularly good comic but it somewhat impressed me. Not enough to search out more, mind you. But I could see myself getting involved in a superhero comic.

And then at some point I found out that J. Michael Straczynski, the guy who made all those Babylon 5 episodes I'd downloaded off the internet, was writing Amazing Spider-Man. So I downloaded the entire run up to that point. That's what got me hooked on superhero comics. And every week after that, I'd go into these archaic chat-rooms (Even then they were archaic, but they were the only semi-reliable source I could find.) and download the new comics directly from someone nice enough to share them with me.

Now, it's not like I've never payed for any comics. I have two volumes of Fables (my favorite one and the first), the hardcover of Omega the Unknown, and the entire $90 set of Bone in color. (Bone is my favorite comic ever.) But I also have copies of all three on the computer. And that's because the computer comics experience is so much better.

The enjoyment I get from comics is threefold:
  1. The intended entertainment of reading the comic.
  2. Collecting and organizing the comics.
  3. Sharing the comics and socializing about them.
To be sure, people who read comics on paper can get all three as well. But I would argue that they can't get as much out of the comics as I do.

1. Reading
Comic books are small, and the art is shrunk down to fit on the page. With good art, I want it to be bigger. I was so disappointed when I got that first Bone book and saw how much less of the nuance of the art I could make out than I'd seen on the computer screen. Now, I'll grant you that the quality of the reading is dependent on the quality of the screen. But even with my awful screen, I feel like I'm appreciating the art much better when I can make it whatever size I like.

(There are certain comics which absolutely can't be scrolled through at a large size without losing a lot. Most of David Mack's comics, for instance. But these are rare.)

Comic books are also filled with ads, which of course the illegal scanners take out. So the flow of the story is uninterrupted.

2. Collecting
I've discovered that I really enjoy organizing things. Every time there's a comic I like, I take off the scanner's tag, change the filename to whatever the title is, and put it in a folder which fits into a chronological order of the timeline. Half the fun of a superhero universe (for me) is how it keeps crossing over with itself in new and interesting ways. Because each one is a new and fun challenge.

A few years ago, Marvel had a massive crossover called Civil War which almost everything tied into. Well, not only did I take all the issues I liked and put them in chronological order (That goes without saying.), but I edited the whole crossover together in a way that felt intentional, like the whole thing was one big novel and I was just assembling it. I think I succeeded in organizing and editing the seventy-odd issues that I kept, so that if you start at the beginning and read through issue by issue in order it seems like the whole thing is one story. (Even though that wasn't the intention of the creators!)

That's the beauty of digital files- you can do whatever you like with them. When I see a typo, well, why should I have a typo in my comics collection? I take out the offending page, and I fix it. That's often harder than you'd think. Comic scans are necessarily imperfect, because it's not coming direct from the digital source. Actually printing the thing causes a lot of flaws, and then scanning it back into the computer messes it up further. None of this is especially noticeable while reading, but if I'm editing the file the imperfections need to be consistent throughout the image, so I can only change it by using other parts of the image to patch over it. But here I'm getting too technical. The bottom line is, I can change the images.

I have gone quite far in abusing this ability. During Civil War, there were some issues which added a really interesting element to the overall story I was constructing, but weren't actually good comics. So I'd chop them up! In the most radical case, I took a nearly-unbearable three issues with wasted potential, and edited them down to one 15-page issue which was entertaining. Don't underestimate the power of editing.

And why does a comic need to be exactly 22 pages, anyway? It's because that's the standard length for the paper they're using. In a digital file, it makes no difference! So if there's a back-up story which is really terrible, I can chop it out! And sometimes I do the opposite, adding in pages to the beginning of a comic (before a cover) from earlier issues. Only when there's a good reason for it, of course. But anyway. On a computer, keeping these comics and organizing them into CDs isn't just collecting. It's a creative exercise as well.

3. Socializing
At first I was just doing all this editing for my own benefit. Truthfully, I still mainly am. But I also give the CDs to neighbors now. They wouldn't otherwise read this stuff, and even if they did I imagine they'd only read one or two comics maximum. But I can give them an entire superhero universe in neat chunks of 700 MBs, which they can see what they like in. So I've got two neighbors who I've been giving the discs to, one after the other. It's not unlike how I used to hand out floppy disks in elementary school.

The point of all this is not just to get other people to experience the same things I've experienced (though you know how obsessed I am with that), but also to give topics for conversation. The people I give these comics to are guaranteed to have somewhat different reactions than me, which means I can ask them why and talk about what worked and what didn't and where it all might be going.

Bottom line, digital comics are great. The only legal way to get new comics is to take a train to Tel Aviv (a garbage-dump of a city an hour away) and find a comic store, and then I won't be able to do what I like with it. Sorry, that's not even remotely enticing. Even if I bought the collections, they're much more rigidly constructed than my CDs, because they've only got the space for six or seven issues per book. (Space limitations are so old-fashioned.) I really couldn't go legal without losing a lot.

The trouble with comics piracy is where I'm getting these comics from. First off, every six months or so Marvel's lawyers catch up to me and force the site I'm using to shut down. And then I've got to pick up and find a new place. Each time I start out thinking it's gonna be a temporary source and then I just get more and more comfortable there until it seems really permanent, and then one day the moderators announce without explanation that they will no longer allow Marvel books to be posted.

But it's more than just the running that's annoying. It's the scanners themselves, and the whole community they've built up around them. These people think that because they put a few comic books in a scanner, that they are the kings and queens of the world and should be treated as such. You may not speak to them without complimenting them on what wonderful people they are, or you're banned. And god help you if you say anything which can even be misconstrued as asking when a comic book will be scanned. And if you're not going to be exactly like the scanners, don't bother trying to participate.

The most recent time I tried to get involved in the scanning community was with an issue of Amazing Spider-Man a few months back. The writer went on record that the dialogue of a certain page was a mistake, and he posted a corrected version of the dialogue. So I took the image of that page and started editing. I got it to look the way the writer wanted, which wasn't simple (The dialogue bubbles all needed to be shaped differently!) and took me a few hours. I think it looks really seamless- if you didn't know I'd edited the page heavily, you couldn't notice. Anyway, I thought that maybe this was what I could do for the community that'd given me so much. So I posted my version of the comic, and it was removed a few hours later? You know why? Go on, guess. It's kind of funny really. They said I was disrespecting the scanners! That was hardly the first time I tried to apply myself in the community, but it'll certainly be the last.

Well, whatever. Those are the guys with the comics, so what can you do.

I'd love it if Marvel would start releasing their comics on the internet. I'd pay for them, same as I pay for lots of downloadable games on the Wii. (Just as with the Wii, I'd still illegally get the ones I wasn't willing to pay for.) But it would need to be as good as the illegal stuff, and Marvel will never even conceive of doing that! They'll never give out comics without the ads, and without copy protection, and at the same time as the print comics, and where you can do what you like with it! Because they're a corporation. And corporations are totally clueless.



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